Monday, 13 October 2008

American exceptionalism

I spent the weekend in the company of old-timers and their children from the Chile solidarity movement of the 1970s and ‘80s, and it was a reminder of how the radical rightward shift of our political culture has altered public discourse on warmaking today.

Back in the post-Vietnam war period when U.S. intervention in Latin America became an issue, we still were capable of understanding policy debates in terms of a given action’s impact on human beings, even if they were not citizens of the United States. We could generate a movement against U.S. support for Latin dictatorships because Pinochet, Videla, the Brazilian fascists and the Salvadoran death squads roamed the streets disappearing their own citizens and institutionalizing torture.

That mattered back then.

Now, by contrast, the Iraq ‘surge’ campaign is touted as a big success largely because American casualties are down and secondarily because fewer bombs are going off and massacring fewer of those Iraqis still living in their country. It is a statement of appallingly racist cheek to declare this to be proof of our winning ways after the horrors Bush put that population through, 4 million of whom continue to languish in destitute exile in Syria, Jordan and anywhere else they could escape to.

I remember my unease when the design for the Vietnam war memorial on the Mall was unveiled in the early 1980s, where Maya Lin’s mournful structure stirred the fury of militarists. They hated the idea of showing all 56,000 names of the American dead because war, to their minds, should only be about triumphant sacrifice and glorious heroism.

Despite my sympathy for Lin, there seemed to me an actor missing in the monument’s statement of what had happened in Vietnam: the Vietnamese. Perhaps 2 million of them had also died, but that salient fact never came up. The debate was only about how we should understand American suffering.

The legacy is that today John McCain can denounce ex-Weatherman Bill Ayers for placing bombs that ‘killed innocent people,’ and no one laughs in his face. His own actions in strafing populated areas from on high are considered the height of heroic self-sacrifice.

Had any foreign soldiers ever dared to fly over Pittsburgh and drop bombs on us, the McCainites would be the first to insist on torturing them. This irony, like so many others, is utterly lost on the citizens of my nation-state.

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